President Obama must soon make a critical decision: how many and what type of U.S. forces to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan this summer. The July withdrawal date is an artificial deadline, one the president created not because it would help us reach our goals in this strategically critical country but for his own domestic political purposes. When Obama made the promise in 2009, at the same time he announced the surge in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it was imprudent. The way he keeps it now could be downright dangerous.
However artificial the deadline, the way Obama treats it will signal whether he remains committed to defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, or whether he is simply looking for a way out of a conflict he neither fully understands nor supports. His decision will send a telling message to U.S. adversaries and friends alike around the world.
The plain fact is that the military situation inside Afghanistan is uncertain. Although there is an official U.S. mood of optimism, and no doubts about the military efficacy and valor of our troops, there are also disturbing and far more pessimistic reports. In February, for example, we withdrew units from northeastern Afghanistan's long-contested Pech Valley, transitioning to Afghan government forces, but we may have been too hasty. Ironically, one justification for the withdrawal was that our presence enhanced Taliban recruiting, but by April, after our withdrawal, Al Qaeda units were back, establishing training and operating bases in the nearby Korengal Valley.
Repeated U.S. efforts to find members of the Taliban willing to negotiate have been largely unsuccessful and at times downright humiliating. Last year, a supposed Taliban leader and key negotiator was revealed as an imposter, but only after he had met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, received bags of NATO money and disappeared, with depressing new sagas of U.S. incompetence.
Iran's influence in Afghanistan also remains strong, through its financing and arming of the Taliban, its control over critical oil supplies and its threats to expel more than 1 million Afghan refugees living in Iran, a humanitarian problem that could destabilize Afghanistan's fragile economy. Make no mistake, a large U.S. withdrawal this summer will be in effect pro-Iran.
An equally significant strategic issue is the impact of Obama's decision on Pakistan. Our relations with Pakistan have recently deteriorated. Pakistan's substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons remains the real prize, and the risk of the country falling into the hands of Islamic radicals remains grave. Military operations and cross-border strikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan are increasingly important to the task but could be jeopardized if Pakistan believes America is scuttling out of Afghanistan.
And yet the extent of the July withdrawal will likely depend on domestic American political factors, just as Obama's 2009 withdrawal announcement was a sop to his political base, to ease their pain with the surge. To Obama, the "conditions on the ground" that matter most have seemingly been the political conditions in America, not military conditions in Afghanistan.
Now that we are in a third war, in Libya, which even U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen concedes is stalemated, Obama may believe he must prove his antiwar credentials by ordering a very substantial Afghanistan withdrawal. The president does not want a primary challenge for the 2012 nomination; satisfying the Democratic left could considerably reduce that risk. By "declaring victory," Obama could explain a large drawdown, but he would be making a serious error of military judgment.
Alternatively, the president may feel protected politically by NATO's agreement to hand over its mission to the Afghans in 2014, thus minimizing the need for substantial troop reductions this summer. But relying on that scripted time frame, rather than strategic considerations, merely creates another artificial deadline.
For the nation, the president's best course would be to protect and capitalize on the progress we have made by maintaining troop levels and offensive operations in Afghanistan until the job is done, whenever that is. Whether Obama will follow this course, or at least order only a token withdrawal to minimize the damage of his imprudent 2009 pledge, we will soon see.
There should be no mistake that a politically driven withdrawal of substantial U.S. forces will squander the victories won in Afghanistan since the 2009 surge. It will signal to the Taliban and Al Qaeda that their long travail is nearing an end. And it will signal to radicals in Pakistan and elsewhere that they too can act against the U.S. ultimately with impunity. All of these results will endanger not just the United States but peace and security worldwide.
John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option."